Physics 175: Physics of Musical Sound


This course provides a basic understanding of how the laws, ideas, and methods of Physics can provide insight into the nature of musical sound. Starting with an examination of the fundamental physical ideas of waves and oscillations and of their production, propagation, and detection, we shall examine how musical instruments operate, how the setting in which a sound is played influences the sound we hear, and how the ear itself works.

For much of the course we will work quite closely through the textbook with much class time given to demonstrations and experiments to illuminate the ideas in the reading. The last part of the course will feature a looser structure so that small groups of students can work on separate projects of interest to them. These projects might include a more detailed study of a particular instrument family, research into the acoustics of halls and auditoria, or an examination of one of the boundaries between electronics and music, such as electronic synthesis, CD players, or streaming audio methods. The course will culminate in public presentations of the projects given during the assigned final exam period on the afternoon of Thursday December 19.

The course will make some use of mathematics up to and including high-school algebra and trigonometry.


The text for this course is

The Science of Sound (3rd Edition)
Rossing, Moore, & Wheeler
Addison Wesley
ISBN 0-8053-8565-7


There is a detailed, day-by-day schedule for the course here but in general we will work our way through about 2/3 of the book. We will be quite thorough in the first three sections of the book (chapters 1-14) and then will jump around a lot to pick topics that seem interesting and accessible.

Course Structure and Assignments

I shall, for the most part, rely on the book to present the basic ideas of the course and hope to use our class time to demonstrate the ideas in the readings. The intent of the demonstrations will be to promote some class discussion of the ideas in the readings so you should come to class ready to answer questions on the day's readings. Occasionally we will use the class time for hands-on experiences including trips to other places on campus.

About once a week we shall have a short (about 15 minute) quiz covering the previous week's material. These quizzes will be made up of short questions on the basic facts of the material and I will post a summary of the week's material at least one day before the quiz.

There will be 10 weekly homeworks, mostly made up from problems in the textbook. There are short answers to many of the book problems in the back of the text and so I shall be giving credit for the working that is shown and not for correct answers. A good homework answer is one that clearly explains how you have obtained your answer, starting from the basic physical facts.

There will be two in class mid-term exams, one in about week 8 and one in week 12. They will be open book and will test your ability to apply the material of the course.

In the last four weeks of the semester the class will form small groups to work on group projects. I expect a typical group to consist of 2-4 students (though individuals with good class records and very clear plans may be allowed to work on their own). During the last two weeks of classes each group will meet with me to discuss their progress at least once.

During the last week of classes each student will submit a short (about 4 page) paper describing their project. These will be graded and returned in time for corrections to influence the final presentations. These will take place during the exam period on the afternoon of Thursday December 19th. Each group will present the results of their research to the whole class in a public (open to anyone who wishes to attend) forum. Although the papers are individual, the presentation should be shared equally among the members of the group. Each person will receive an individual grade for the paper and a group grade for the presentation.


You will need to attend 4 concerts over the semester and send me an email about each. These emails will constitute homework #11.



Fraction of Course Grade

11 homeworks, each of equal value


8 quizzes, each of equal value


Two exams, of equal value (10% each)


Group grade for the project, same grade to each team member


Final paper grade (individual)


Physics 175